In the month following her historic gold medal winning performance at the Olympics, Puerto Rican tennis star Mónica Puig landed sponsorship deals with AT&T and Dodge. Judging from the number of billboards congratulating her for her victory and paid for by a host of local and multinational corporations, she will surely be popping up in a bevy of ads in the months to come. Who knows? She might even get one or two of the sponsors that have dropped NFL players this month for their reluctance to stand during the playing of the National Anthem in protest of police violence against African American communities.
I’m kidding, of course. Puig’s ads—I think—only run in the Island, where people have been refusing to stand for the playing of the U.S. National Anthem for well over a century now. This, by the way, is reason enough for oppositional, social justice-oriented efforts and campaigns on the Island to establish working and caring links with the Black Lives Matter movement on the mainland. Another reason is that Afro-Puerto Rican people’s lives are threatened in a similar way by the Puerto Rican police and the justice system in general. Yet another is that Puerto Rico’s historic reluctance to broach systemic racial discrimination could only be analyzed, attacked and overturned by a radical, on-the-street and complex movement such as Black Lives Matter.
What all this has to do with Puig and her historic win is sketchy at best. Puig, after all, is white. At least by Island standards. And what has made her matter so much over the last month is that she did not kneel to higher-ranked competition in the biggest international stage, where she made Puerto Rico visible to all, by standing proud and strong during the playing of the Island’s own National Anthem. Thus, the telling of her story, newspaper column after newspaper column, has taken the form of a lesson in morality for the Island’s ‘unruly’ and ‘wayward’ masses: visibility through hard work; visibility through discipline; visibility through sacrifice; visibility through grace and elegance [and whiteness]; visibility through [uncomplicated, unquestioned and unrelenting] pride in ‘who we are.’ Which, translated from the sports arena into the realm of the political, is a hell of recipe for compliance in times of induced precarity and increasing austerity measures.
Thus, in this context, I cannot help but tune in to watch her play, hoping she ‘pulls a Kaepernick’ of some sort and complicates the terms of her visibility. But, until she does, there’s Épico and Primo, The Shining Stars of Word Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). Billed as heels [wrestling speak for villains], their gimmick is that of conmen who, bearing glossy brochures, unsuccessfully attempt to convince the competition and the audience to invest in time shares on the ‘beautiful Island of Puerto Rico.’ The con is predicated not so much on the sellers’ shady character—sure, they cheat to win, but even fan favorites do so from time to time— nor on the mendacity of their claim—who could fault them, really, for calling Puerto Rico a tropical paradise in front of a live audience in Kansas City?—but on the fact that they’re selling damaged goods from a financial and political perspective. After all, the Puerto Rican government is 73 billion dollars in debt and soon to have its day to day operations monitored by a Fiscal Control Board, recently appointed by the President. Hence, the good people of Kansas City would be crazy to take The Shining Stars on their word.
What makes Puerto Rico a bad investment is not made explicit during the wrestling show. Similar to its infamous, stereotypical portrayals of Russian and Arab villains over time, the WWE banks on American audiences’ base level xenophobia and awareness as to why wrestlers from such geographies are to be found suspect. What’s intriguing about Puerto Rico—and Puerto Ricans—as a foreignish enemy is the precise nature of the threat. Russian and Arab wrestlers are bad guys because their respective countries are seen as presenting danger in the form of war and terrorism. The harm they inflict in the ring on an American wrestler represents the real (and imagined) harm that their governments and/or rogue associations are responsible for in the ‘real world.’
The harm that Puerto Ricans could cause is of a different sort. Thus, Épico and Primo do not come to the ring bearing menacing grins. They come to the ring all smiles. With hyacinths in their hands, even. Furthermore, their entrance music and accompanying video package were made to closely resemble those used by the Puerto Rican government in their most recent promotional campaigns to boost tourism. Actually, the Island’s formal branding over the past few years has been “Puerto Rico, the shining star of the Caribbean.” In a way, Épico and Primo—with their flowered patterned shirts, and their ‘olive skin’—resemble cabana boys overstepping their bounds with resort guests. They are there to seduce and to lure the naïve and unsuspecting into certain financial ruin. With every blow landed, an American investor’s bank account is drained. Thus, they have to be defeated if the America is to be made great again in the world marketplace.
This is another form of Puerto Rican visibility today. The anti-Puig way, if you will. Visibility through an assigned (and assumed) foreignness; visibility through stereotype; visibility through threat; visibility through cunning; visibility through eventual defeat. The Shining Stars take center stage so American audiences can boo at them and at the place where so many of them have vacationed or changed planes in or only read about it the financial pages. They certainly do not make history when they step into the ring. Pro wrestling is not actually a sport—let alone an Olympic one— and I would be hard pressed to argue on behalf of such a prejudicial portrayal of two Puerto Rican men. And yet, this is not all that can be said about their performance.
One could also say, for example, that their gimmick is not so much of conmen out to swindle well-meaning Americans out of their savings, but of two Robin Hood-esque type characters on a fund-raising mission for a revolution of sorts. Who knows? Perhaps the first colonial institutions that will fall in the Puerto Rico to come are the resorts. To be occupied by over-stepping cabana boys. ¿Qué no?